As the Executive Director of Can do Canines, it’s safe to say that Jeff Johnson is a major dog lover. His organization trains service dogs to assist with 5 types of disabilities: mobility issues, severe hearing loss, children with autism, type 1 diabetics, and seizure disorders. After a rigorous application process, the service dogs are matched with their owner to grant them freedom and independence.
How do you choose the dogs in your program?
We have a breeding program that started about 12 years ago, so that’s where most of our dogs come from. Each year, there’s a few that come from the International Breeding Cooperative, a few that are donated, and a few that we rescue. The majority of our dogs are labrador retrievers, and we have some standard poodles for those with allergies. Depending on the disability we are trying to assist with, we look for different qualities in the dogs, but all need to be well-mannered and want to serve. For example, our dogs for kids with autism need to be calm and collected in the presence of chaos. Our dogs for diabetics, however, need to be extremely alert so they can let their owner know when they have a drop in blood sugar.
Can you explain how service dogs benefit the lives of people with disabilities?
Every client is different, and each dog is specifically trained to fit their needs. For mobility clients, the dogs retrieve items, open doors, help with laundry, push elevator buttons, and do more specialized tasks like putting on and removing socks. For autistic children, the dogs prevent kids from bolting in public and serve as a calming presence. Those dogs are a social bridge for kids by giving them confidence to interact with others. Our dogs for diabetics actually smell on their owner’s breath when they are having a lull in blood sugar and can retrieve a juice or wake them up if they are sleeping. For our hearing dogs, they alert their owner when alarms are going off and can be trained for more specific noise cues.
What does the training process entail?
Our dogs are trained in prisons for up to a year, and then work with professional trainers for a few months. We have 7 prison partners in Minnesota and Wisconsin where the dogs live with inmates. Our staff members do weekly group training sessions in the prisons, and then the inmates work on that week’s lesson with the dog until the next session. Talking to inmates about this program is amazing— it teaches them about compassion, patience, and exposes them to unconditional love. The inmates are really able to change the lives of our clients by training their service dogs. The trainors then determine what “career” is best for the dogs in their personalized training. About 30% of our dogs don’t have the passion to serve, so they end up as pets and the rest are trained to fit one of our disability sectors. We work directly with our clients to ensure that the dogs are trained to fit each client’s specific needs.
What has been your favorite part of working with Can do Canines?
That’s easy. The best part is talking to clients after they’ve had their dog for a few months and hearing about the difference the dog has made in their lives. It gives people independence and peace of mind that nothing else can compare to. No hearing aid or motorized wheelchair can provide the sense of freedom that these dogs can. We’re not just giving them physical help, but also a 24/7 companion and best friend. It’s so rewarding to hear about their experiences.